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Top 10 CDs of 2004

Uneasy listening

It’s only been a year since Globe critics were singing the praises of OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” a humor-drenched, Southern-fried pair party discs. At the close of 2004, we’re moved in equal measure by a very different pair of albums: one a transcendent rebirth from country music legend Loretta Lynn, the other a return to roots and gravitas from the rock band U2.

Has the grave state of world affairs inspired the artists to refocus their energies? Are the critics (a notoriously lofty bunch when it comes to making lists) particularly drawn, as the election year winds down and the war rages on, to the somber side of the craft?

Perhaps a little of both. Either way, the works that appear again and again on 2004’s Top 10 lists are as ambitious as they are diverse. In a year when online downloading continued to flourish and a singles driven market chipped away at the very concept of an album, two of 2004’s most notable releases were, in fact, concept albums: Green Day’s political rock opera “American Idiot” and the Streets’ socially astute hip-hop drama “A Grand Don’t Come for Free.”

This is the year Brian Wilson chose to resurrect “Smile,” a self-described “teenage symphony to God” that doubles as a psychedelic narrative of American history.

Eminem tested the political waters with his video for “Mosh,” an overt criticism of the Bush administration and a call to arms for young voters. The best-selling album of the year, Usher’s “Confessions,” married crunk — the rowdy sonic mash of crazy and drunk that ruled hip-hop, which ruled in general — with a cheerless, regret-filled set of lyrics.

Of course, there were exceptions to pop music’s new seriousness. The Scissor Sisters’ fizzy, flirty debut is a testament, perhaps, to the value of pure escapism, although it must be noted that the disc’s standout track is a remake of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” a song about isolation and disengagement in the modern world.

It would be tough to allege that Bjork does anything even remotely shaped by the world outside her interior bliss. Yet the primal pleasures of “Medulla,” which she built mainly of voices, are connected to the other important albums of the year by virtue of one essential and defining feature: its unabashed humanity.

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